In the midst of so many things “Christian,” we can have a hard time identifying Jesus Himself.
Every summer our church emphasizes evangelistic concerns. All our messages during that time are outreach oriented. However this year, we’ve had to adjust our strategy. We want to offer tools to the typical church member, things that will help them not only to survive, but to thrive. Our series has been called Little House—a fitting title, since most every church right now has become little, at least in some sense.
Covid has created a lot of complexity by scattering people. The best way I know how to Illustrate the situation is with the Where’s Waldo of 2019:
And the Where’s Waldo of 2020:
From the spiritual standpoint, God has cleared the decks. There’s very little church stuff left to camouflage Him. The only things left are you, the Bible, and those Christians you meet with. Gone are the pageants, the events, the programs, and every possible fig leaf.
You might say these changes have been hard on us, and in some respects that’s true. But at the same time, the Lord has made it easier for us, because Christ wants us to recognize his presence, not confuse it with all the extras surrounding Him.
Let’s go back to Luke chapter 24. Much of what we need to know in terms of recognizing Christ and interacting with him is right there in that chapter, in seed form. Jesus had died on the cross for our sins, and in the little window of time before he resurrected, the disciples grew disillusioned, and depressed. A few of them were walking along the road to Emmaus, when a stranger approached from the side, who was actually the resurrected Christ, as yet unrecognized by them. While still incognito, He asked what they were talking about. In essence, they told Jesus about Himself, mentioning His crucifixion, and empty tomb. They also mentioned a vision of angels others had seen, claiming He was alive.
But we haven’t seen anything.
Then Jesus, still unrecognized by them, said, ‘O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?’ And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (vv. 25-27).
This was the only place in the Bible where Jesus delivered a comprehensive Old Testament commentary about himself, and while walking down a road, no less.
28 So they drew near to the village to which they were going. He acted as if he were going farther, 29 but they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, for it is toward evening and the day is now far spent.” So he went in to stay with them. 30 When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed and broke it and gave it to them. 31 And their eyes were opened, and they recognized him. And he vanished from their sight.
It doesn’t say that He left. He vanished. He was still present, but unseen.
32 They said to each other, “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures?”
In that moment of reflection, they remembered a curious, mounting intensity within them of passion and joy. It had led up to the moment of gathering together and then recognizing Him.
I remember the first time I strongly recognized the presence of Christ, post salvation. For about three weeks I had been living on low octane fuel, that is, private spirituality, semi-isolated from other Christians. I was facing a lot of temptations, especially the kind typical for a twenty-one year old single guy. I was also beset with worries about my new faith, wondering if it was going to end up being a mile marker in my past, reminding me of when I used to be involved with Christian things.
As for the church, to me, it had mainly been a group of positive people I liked. I enjoyed their spiritual energy, and morale. That was it.
Then I heard that my church was going to have a weekend teaching event with multiple sessions. I signed up for it, put on my best shirt (which was my only shirt), and went. There wasn’t anything spectacular about it—no fancy lighting, or fog machines, or world-class musicians—just a combination of word and gathering. As I sat in one of those uncomfortable church chairs, somebody opened up a few verses on the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ, breaking them down and putting them out there for everybody to see. I recall a moment where I felt like, Wow! This is really something! Even better, the person who was teaching was not a gifted communicator, so all my kudos and all my wows were for the content, and not for the speaker.
When I look back on those simple moments, I see similarities to the Emmaus road experience, when hearts burned and recognition of Jesus occurred in the gathering. When the weekend was over, and I went home, I was a different guy then when I had first arrived.
Word and meetings are vital to the Christian existence; they link together in ways that keep the resurrected Christ front-and-center, and recognized.
Outreach magazine recently published an article stating that during this time of social distancing, Bible reading has been down overall. I was shocked by that appraisal, because it would seem that social distancing creates room, and thus more time to read Scripture. But just like Scripture reading fuels the church, the church fuels Scripture reading. Proximity to one another fosters spiritual hunger in ways that we’re hardly aware of. Prolonged semi-Isolation on the other hand, can blunt our ability to receive spiritual things, making us spiritually slow.
Jesus described the disciples on the road as being slow, sluggish of heart to believe. Their response time to precious things of God had become like cold syrup. In fact, they had already heard that Jesus had resurrected, but dismissed it. The good news did not affect them. If they had been contemporary churchgoers, they probably would have said something like, “I didn’t get much out of your testimony. I wasn’t fed by your message.”
Curiously enough, they had been on the road with Jesus. Their hearts burned while He spoke the Word, yet they still didn’t recognize Him until they were in the house. While they were on the road, they were on their way to do something else, to reach a destination, accomplish a plan. Even with hearts burning, they couldn’t settle down to recognize what it was igniting their inward being. It wasn’t until they were sitting down, free of the distractions of the day, that they recognized him in the breaking of the bread.
The church overall has for thousands of years, sanctified a day of the week to come together for worship. Recently this habit was interrupted due to the pandemic. We’ve had to lean on the wonderful tools of the digital format. As it turns out though, this nifty solution is not without its temptations. Think about it—the convenience of pre-recorded messages and worship music is like a church in your pocket. You can consume it on the fly, while you’re doing dishes, or fixing your car.
You can be on a road trip somewhere, and catch the Sunday production—yes, and even get a little something out of it. But for all its handiness, this can lead to an undoing of what Christians have been trying to practice for two millennia—the sheer sanctification of time. Where we once struggled to set aside a day of the week for worship, we now have a valid excuse for not doing so. All seven days can now belong to other pursuits apparently immune to Covid-19, like hobbies, projects, road trips, family reunions, and other events.
No good will come of this.
We must recapture the art of sanctified focus. When we talk about a gathering, it’s not just to consume content. It’s a statement that honors God, whether it’s a zoom room, small Sunday, or small group. It’s the little house experience of settling our souls, and recognizing the Lord. We’re not only trying to get back to what we used to do, but hoping to preserve these things that really count.
I went to an in-person Wednesday night small group this last week, the first one I have attended since the pandemic began. It was held outdoors. We closed the laptop, put our evening on hold, and made a trip somewhere. Just about every comment during our gathering was a home run. I was able to receive something from the people there, and I really felt like the Lord spoke, and confirmed a couple of things for me. My heart burned, and for a change it wasn’t reflux related.
In my own house on Sunday morning, we try to do the same thing by having another family over, hoping we can recognize the Lord in our fellowship. And this has happened for me in some of our Zoom rooms as well, where attendants were handling the word and were really into the meeting. I was moved to the point of tears as some thought or statement became shiny, living, and the Lord opened up who He was right through the computer screen.
As it turns out, Jesus is more than available these days.